I am grateful to Law & Liberty for the opportunity to discuss whether we should patch up the Right.
Asking whether the Right can be repaired seems strange; to some, the Right seems resurgent. There is a Republican in the White House, Senator Mitch McConnell is confirming judges as fast as his Republican majority can vote for them, the economy, while not without its problems, seems to be doing well, and some of the controversies of the Obama years (such as religious liberty) seem to be moving in a conservative direction. Indeed, given these factors, there are pretty good odds we will have another Trump term. Our friends on the left would also likely argue that the 2016 presidential election announced the triumph of the Right. The 1950s are here again, rights are being “rolled back,” and the secular, progressive future cleansed of “deplorables” and enforced by bureaucrats wielding “dear colleague” letters, health regulations, and activist judges has been thrown into turmoil, if not jeopardy.
But as is well known now, inside the Right, the situation looks much different. The Trump presidency threw the “official” Right into turmoil. Establishment magazines such as The Weekly Standard and National Review took anti-Trump stances, while others were more cautious. After the demise of The Weekly Standard, several online sites arose to stake a claim as the anti-Trump right, while National Review pivoted to allow more favorable coverage of the president. But this foment is only partially about ideas.
The “Right” is a combination of the political movement embedded in the Republican Party, whose aim is to win elections, and the conservative intellectual movement, which is supposed to explain why the elections are worth winning. Part of the current argument simply reflects the recognition that the conservative firmament — the well-funded ecosystem of think tanks, pundits, position papers, conferences, and the like that has grown up over the past thirty years — did not really foresee, and had little directly to do with, Trump’s victory. That was a political failing, but that failing revealed more serious intellectual issues. The old unities have broken up, and hidden divisions, along economic, political, and cultural lines, are again in the open. Conservatives love to write think-pieces about the history of various factions, exploring the nature of conservatism and proposing new juxtapositions; I’ve written a few myself, and there have been such pieces as long as there has been a conservatism. But as evidenced by the repudiation of the mainstream conservative candidates in 2016, this work has become detached from the concerns of actual Americans.
Since at least the early 1990s, when I first became involved in conservative intellectual work, the Reagan collection of cultural conservatives, economic libertarians, and anticommunists was the lamented lost three-legged stool that had brought conservatism to victories in 1980 and 1988, even as the world that created that coalition dissolved. The three Reagan-era groups were united by a common enemy. Communism was godless, so the cultural conservatives were on board. Communism was, well, communist, so the libertarians signed up to resist “big government “ back home, and as for the anti-communists that speaks for itself, although the energy in defeating communism too often spilled over into expanding America’s power (hard or “soft”) abroad just because we could. After the Clinton years, a brief glimmer of hope arose in 2000 that George W. Bush, himself a believing Christian, would temper the country’s foreign policy adventurism and cultural decay. But this was lost in the aftermath of September 11.
Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism discussed the relationship between conservative thinking and conservative practice in this way: “if it is true that conservatism becomes conscious only when it is forced to be so, then it is inevitable that the passage from practice to theory will not be rewarded by any immediate influence from theory back to what is done.” A lot of the history of conservatism since is reflected in that sentence. There has been much conservative theorizing since the 1980s, but its success as translated back into conservative practice is disputable. For reasons Dan McCarthy spells out here, political elites, including conservative ones, have been sleepwalking through the twenty-first century and many had not, until the election of 2016, realized the world had changed. This rupture had been building way before Trump. In 2012, for example, I noted in Perspectives on Political Science that the emergence of the Tea Party may have represented a different type of conservative renascence, because the issues motivating them might cause them to avoid capture by Washington and Beltway conservatism.
So in different ways, conservatives have been trying to patch themselves up again for the better part of three decades. Even in the wake of Trump, traces of the old Reaganism survive. Some think the answer is to return to Reagan — this time as Democrats (the problem of rightwing pundits equating conservatism with presidential elections is a subject for another time). The 2020 National Conservatism conference, whose inaugural conference last year made such a splash as illustrative of the new conservative turn, invokes both Reagan and Pope St. John Paul II, a headline that could have been used for a DC conservative convention through the 1990s. Others want conservatives to avoid tribalism, but conclude conservatives are just being mean these days. And you can still find the occasional paean to global capitalism. Indeed, one prominent conservative writer threw up his hands in trying to find out “What Unites The Right?”
But the success of that postwar patchwork was always overstated, and one should be cautious in using that as an example of how conservatism should conduct itself today. There is perhaps a reasonable argument that government is smaller than it would have been had liberals won in 1980 or 1988, but one cannot argue that government is small as such or that its power has not grown to levels unimaginable to 1950s or 1960s conservatives (or liberals for that matter). But it is almost impossible to argue that culturally America is a more conservative place, in almost any sense of the term, than it was in 1980, which is simply a crushing blow to large parts of the conservative intellectual project. The progressive left has essentially won the culture war, although that victory was only cemented when corporations began (as Timothy Crimmins wrote recently in American Affairs) to “engage in progressive (rather than transgressive) culture-warring, to distract from rising discontent with rising inequality and dwindling wages.” In other words, as Bruce Frohnen and Ted McAllister state in their recent book, Coming Home, “Cold War conservatism gained the world and lost its soul.” The strains of conservative thought that stressed locality, hostility to militarism, and suspicion of “free markets” were submerged into a narrative that stressed instead global capitalism and democracy export.
We do not need to pause too long on the charge that patching up the Right would mean “going back.” Entering into that argument is a progressive trap: sing the praises of the past, and one is a reactionary. But agree that settled political or cultural arrangements should be retained, and conservatism is accused of lacking principle and simply accepting whatever the current arrangements happen to be. Now, as Chesterton once said, the objection that one cannot turn back the clock is misplaced. A society, like a clock, is human-made, and we can turn it to wherever we like. But trying to patch together an alliance when the motivating forces that made that alliance worthwhile have dissipated or disappeared will end up being a fruitless enterprise. We need instead to think about what conservatism is for, before we can figure out who the allies may be. Conservatives would do well to focus once again on Scruton’s “what is done,” which I take to mean how Americans actually live today and what set of economic and political arrangements available in our constitutional system make the most sense. Some have already started to do that, but not all of them are conservatives in the expected sense.
So the old patchwork no longer works; it represents, as a group of First Things writers suggest, a “dead consensus.” Is a new one worthwhile? As I have suggested, one positive thing about the (most recent) break-up of conservatism is that it has allowed some of the old profusion of conservative thought back into the conversation. The biggest example of this perhaps is the antiwar tradition that bloomed after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reflected in the founding of The American Conservative. But that is not the only opportunity for a return to the rich sources of American conservatism.
Kenneth Kersch in his recent book on conservatives and the Constitution, cites a number of different ways conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s approached the Constitution. Not all conservative thinkers were what would today be considered originalists, for example, and some had a robust view of the connection between culture and the Constitution that differs from contemporary conservatives. And George Hawley discusses several groups, from paleoconservatives to radical libertarians, who have critiqued mainstream conservatives from the right. I would also note here the emergence of a more fully articulated black conservatism, which differs at crucial points from mainstream conservatism. This body of thought, I would argue, might very well have remained muted under the old dispensation, heavily indebted as conservative intellectual life was to white Southern influence. If there is one thing conservatism can do in this still-new century, it would be to integrate the African American experience into its defense of communities.
The role of government, for example, is rapidly shifting in conservative debate. Since the 1980s, if not before, the Right has been obsessed (with some exceptions) with reducing government, of any size, at every level, for any purpose, in order to counteract creeping socialism which in any event did not resonate with most Americans. But in fact, conservatives have often been just as interested in the power of government to coerce behavior as liberals have been, but too often have not really thought about what that means, except perhaps as an instrument to an ill-defined “liberty.” “Law and order” conservatives, so popular in the 1980s of my youth, was simply another way of saying that power matters, and deciding what is legal and permissible, or illegal and prohibited, is in part a reflection of the common good of that community.
Russell Kirk often connected order in the individual with order in the commonwealth. As a localist — and a somewhat eccentric individual himself — Kirk primarily looked at this question from the bottom up; if individuals were well ordered, the commonwealth would also be. But he also understood the power of government, and knew that sometimes people come together to reflect the good they have in common through government. As Kirk wrote in his Prospects for Conservatives, he offered that this view of order, which he called Johnsonian, should be combined with what he called the Burkean. “Burke, however, though awake to the moral climate of opinion, believed that the particular system of social organization under which a people exit helps to shape their moral character, and therefore must receive the most sedulous attention.” I had always understood this insight as part of the conservative critique of endless war. Conservatives opposed war, and especially the indeterminate occupation of various countries, not just because such wars were unjust and caused harm to the people in those countries at great cost to ours. Military occupation destroys the character of the people doing the occupying as well; the nation becomes militaristic, used to the casual cruelties of war and the solvent to family, locality, and culture such militarism brings.
Scruton similarly noted the intertwining of private society and the power of the state through the power of the law. Concepts like freedom do not exist in the abstract, and are embedded in the particular constitutions and customs of the particular nations in which they exist. Law is there to enforce and express the boundaries of those concepts in accordance with how the people see themselves and, ultimately, in accordance with their common good. Indeed, Scruton writes that contrary to a liberal individualistic view of the law, “the legitimate sphere of law will be all that matters to social continuity, all that can be taken as standing in need of state protection.”
This fits nicely with the American federalist system properly understood; as Frohnen and McAllister recognize, Americans’ dedication to local government “was prior to, and higher than, their love of individual freedom.” Limited government need not be powerless government, and that at governmental levels closer to the people, government can do more. Now this claim has a natural objection: as someone on social media phrased it, the Shire needs Gondor. That is, for localities to be preserved or thrive, a strong state must stand above them. And that state must be run by people with the good of their people in mind; as political thinkers from Xenophon to James Burnham have written, the character of the regime is set by those who run it. A kind of nationalism, therefore, is not inconsistent with conservatism, but I suppose I am only a faint-hearted nationalist. Gondor only makes sense because it allows for Shires to thrive and it is even better that the Shire is only half aware of Gondor’s protection.
Conservatives used to join the concept of nationalism with the countervailing factor of patriotism, which was more clearly articulated in the work of the late historian John Lukacs. He wrote that patriotism “is the love of one’s land and its history,” while nationalism “nationalism is a viscous cement that binds formless masses together.” Nationalism faces outward, contrasting our nation with others, while patriotism at its best is inward. Moreover, although loyalty to one’s nation in the abstract is one thing all America have in common, it must not be the only thing. Other loyalties need to be cultivated as well. Although many conservatives are finding nationalism attractive, more work needs to be done on developing a nationalism that puts America’s interests first while reviving the country’s heritage of devotion to and participation in local governments of real power. The patchwork between nationalists and localists needs to be a little more finely threaded.
The stolid Republican industrialists who did not want to rock the cultural boat have been replaced by Silicon Valley disruptors and woke global corporations. The anticommunists have had careers as Middle East experts and adjuncts to empire. The libertarians win victories, but are at risk of losing the war. Simply put, we need to cultivate new sources of conservative thinking, but conservative sentiment as well.
When I was writing my book on “postmodern conservatism,” I found writers who shared conservative sentiments without adopting the Right’s political commitments; indeed, one of the inspirations of the book was an essay by David Rieff on the easy alliance between multiculturalism (which conservatives are supposed to dislike) and capitalism (which conservatives were supposed to like). Some of these were also described in books like Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Since writing that book, there is now a large middle ground where people are feeling their way for new answers: they know community is dissolving but are trapped in a discourse (on both right and left) that assumes rights are prior to responsibilities, and are told to disdain obligations in favor of self-fulfillment. Looking at the contemporary situation, where writers like Peter Augustine Lawler landed was that modernity had, in a very real sense, ended, and that conservatism was the only worldview that could survive the transformation. Modernity was about transcending limits, but postmodernity will be about recognizing ourselves as bounded, relational individuals once again. The narrative and unifying principles for that “postmodern” world have yet to be developed, but would not likely replicate the political allegiances of the preceding periods.
Conservative intellectual work takes places on a number of levels, but too much of it has neglected Kirk’s view that at times, change is the means to our preservation. The Reagan coalition thrived because it had an external enemy that was equally committed to the West’s defeat. The post 9/11 conservative coalition, in retrospect, seems artificial. Americans wanted to fight terror, yes, but didn’t want to be in the Middle East as an occupying force, and the cultural situation between 1950 and 2001 rendered the national unity of the former impracticable in the latter. The current conservative alignment has an adversary in progressivism but its proponents are, in fact, also Americans. So conservatives need to rediscover common ground as Americans. As Kirk and others knew, people naturally are drawn to tradition and continuity. Any conservative patchwork should include all those who recognize that common human drive.
A fairly coherent Right still exists in America—and it needs help, not a re-founding.
Just because someone asserts that an approach is “conservative” doesn’t make it so, or make it it politically practical or responsive to our times.